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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Hannah: Effective as Cat-and-Mouse Melodrama

Liz Wisan and Kayla Maisonet
Hannah Senesh was a young Jewish woman who fled from Hungarian anti-Semitism and emigrated to Palestine in 1939. There, she first joined the Haganah, and, thereafter, she enlisted in the British army. In 1944, at the age of 22, she, along with other enlisted settlers, were parachuted into Yugoslavia both to join partisans opposed to the Nazis, and to enter Hungary to aid Jews in escaping to Palestine before a Nazi invasion. Germany invaded Hungary before she could get there, but Senesh still tried to enter Hungary to aid its Jews, only to be arrested as she crossed the border. She refused to turn over British communication codes to her captors and sought to help other prisoners as best she could in the ensuing months. Senesh was convicted of treason by Hungarian authorities, and executed by a firing squad in November, 1944. However, she kept detailed diaries during her time in prison, and these diaries are the basis of John Wooten's engrossing new play, Hannah.

It appears that, because the heart of Hannah is her time in prison and the cat-and-mouse game between her and the prison commandant, Wooten has constructed his play so that it begins with Hannah in prison and then proceeds to intersperse flashback scenes beginning with Hannah's childhood in Budapest. Eventually the play will fast forward to scenes after her death. Some of the flashback scenes are presented out of chronological order. Unfortunately, this fractured structure is often confusing, leaving the viewer uncertain has to where and when we are, and the chronological relationship of some scenes.

A more straightforward chronological structure would certainly make matters less confusing, and could still allow us to share reveries from the past with the imprisoned Senesh.

Still, Hannah's history as a child who is raised within an assimilated family who is unwilling to accept second class status in order to be tolerated and becomes an ardent and dedicated Zionist makes for an interesting narrative. Even more compelling is that extremely well dramatized cat-and-mouse game which she is forced to play by the prison commandant. Senesh is subjected to psychological manipulation, trickery, false promises and brutal torture. There is a richness in their interplay as Hannah determinedly flexes her mental and emotional muscles to maintain her sense and sanity against an onslaught which can be as brilliant as it is brutal.

By the way, Hannah Senesh was a poet and all of the poetry that is spoken in this play was written by her.

Liz Wisan is an appealing and dimensional Hannah. She makes us see the wheels constantly turning in the imprisoned Hannah's head as she extends her navigation of treacherous waters as long as humanly possible. Even more impressive is Alan Coates as the chilling commandant. No mere brute of a Nazi, Coates is an intelligent, thorough and charming man who under ordinary circumstances can be charming, considerate and likeable. However, when protecting his own position and security, he exudes a ruthlessness that knows no limit. His commandant doesn't turn into a monster so much as he allows the monster within to reveal itself.

Kayla Maisonet is good the young Hannah, and then delivers a particularly well nuanced performance as Rachel, a child whom Senesh offers solace in prison. Jean Tafler is appropriately dignified as Senesh's mother. Maxwell Eddy as a conflicted prison guard, Michael Satow as Senesh's intimate friend and fellow settler-soldier, and Tony Mowatt and Drew Hirshfield, each in multiple roles, make important contributions.

Director Adam Immerwahr has smoothly directed the multi-scene 95 minute long, one-act play which is performed with seating on four sides of a large square stage. However, Immerwahr must share the blame for not better clarifying matters of time and place. There are scenes at the end of play involving memorial candles in which bereft Jewish characters appear to be kneeling in prayer, an act which is contrary to Jewish belief and tradition.

Similarly, the play concludes with a flashback to the earliest time depicted in Hannah. It depicts a very young Hannah being told a radiant, inspirational story by her then still living playwright father. It has a shining, joyous spirituality that is Christian in spirit (a la the redemptive endings of Les Miserables and the film Places in the Heart), but is out of place for the situation and people depicted here. This likely influences my view that the scene extends Hannah superfluously beyond its true conclusion.

Hannah is well worth viewing as it now stands. However, it would not take much for author John Wooten to raise it to an even higher plateau.

Hannah continues performances (Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8pm/ Saturday and Sunday 3pm) through September 18, 2011, at the Zelda Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey. Box Office:908-737-4092; online:

Hannah by John Wooten; directed by Adam Immerwahr

Hannah....................................................Liz Wisan
Prison Guard/Police Officer 2............Maxwell Eddy
Young Hannah/Rachel....................Kayla Maisonet
Catherine.............................................Jean Tafler
Silon (Commandant)............................Alan Coates
Superintendent/Sondi, et al. ................Tony Mowatt
Yoel.................................................Michael Satow
George/Bela, et al. ..........................Drew Hirshfield

Photo: Roy Groething

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